The Giant Malagasy Hissing Cockroaches were a gift from a student’s father, who brought them unexpectedly and said “keep them warm, and give them a banana peel now and then.” The roaches were each a little over three inches long, and resembled nothing so much as a Giant Bug from one of those 50s horror movies.
Of course, we hadn’t just gotten the four or five huge Malagasy roaches. We got four or five huge Malagasy roaches, three of which were (in some bizarre huge-insect way) pregnant. As I didn’t until that moment know, “One interesting aspect of Madagascar hissing cockroach reproduction is the females, to some degree, bear live young, as they are ovoviviparous.” Thirty or forty baby roaches escaped from the container (like piglets from a pen), and spread out in all directions just as my 1st period class arrived.
The first kids to come in saw what was coming across the floor and began bolting back into the hallway, where they knocked into other kids trying to get in. They gave up trying to escape and went to stand on their chairs, peering down at the baby roaches running around on the floor and shrieking occasionally.
Some of the roaches were now making for the doors, smelling no doubt the cafeteria three stories below, and ready to turn the day’s special of macaroni and cheese into a surprisingly crunchy meal. I could vividly imagine the unflattering picture of myself that would soon appear in the New York Post, underneath the headline—”Roach Food!”
But, as always, among every group, there are those whose bravery emerges unheralded. Luis and Sergey immediately began scooping up the babies into their hands, putting them back into the terrarium, and taping up the sides so they couldn’t escape again. Kids began gingerly to step down from their chairs, coming over to watch the mother Malagasy Hissing Cockroaches—so considerate—guiding the babies over to the over-ripe bananas, on which they all chowed down.
In six or seven years of keeping bugs [meaning arthropods, not the insect taxon] as classroom pets, there were clear patterns of behavior (of the bugs, and the kids reacting to the bugs.)
Giant African Millipedes were sweet-natured and gentle, curling up on your finger like a 700-legged kitten, or drowsily munching on rotten logs for days and days, undisturbed. The kids almost always became quite attached to them, and would become upset if a terrarium was left too dry or mold was found on a vegetable inside. On the other hand, the millipedes were surprisingly good at escaping their terraria in the middle of the night, and the Spanish teacher or the Tech teacher would arrive the next day, red-faced, having been surprised in the teachers’ washroom by something crawling across the floor.
Land snails were big hits with everyone, great for races to see which snail could get to the lettuce or the cucumber first. But then they became more heavily regulated, and Carolina Biological stopped selling them.
Crayfish were interesting to everyone, beautiful orange and blue colors and clearly smart and curious as arthropods went, but so foul-smelling when they died that it was better not even to bother.
Wolf spiders would hang out in their cage, unmoving for days, until they jumped on a cricket or ant or whatever we’d give them to eat, just when no one was watching. They will also, if you try to pick them up, bite you quite painfully, even though they can’t penetrate the skin, and, much to kids’ disappointment, I never became Spiderman as a result.
Mealworms will eat their oats or potatoes until they almost burst, becoming almost unmoving, turn into bizarre HR Giger-like pupae, and emerge as beetles, who will immediately start quite-indecently mating, to the observing kids’ horror.
Crickets either die or multiply beyond count. My worst classroom observation was a cricket experiment where they all seemed to have kicked each other dead and even begun to smell rotten in the twenty minutes between setting up the experiment and the principal walking through the door, clipboard in hand.
From time to time, there were other bugs that would arrive, brought by one kid or another– praying mantises, huge with wicked spikes on their arms, or a piece of bark filled with an ants’ nest, or sleeping and hideous cicada grubs. It was assumed that they belonged there in the classroom, with the rest, and they would be arranged with all the rest of the terraria alongside the window or on bookshelves or next to the fish tanks, for kids to look at when they were bored or when it was time to take a break from learning the parts of the cell or structure and function in the circulatory system.
When we got to learning about cladistics and classification, no one had any trouble believing there were more species of arthropods than anything else.